Matt Damon Whitewashes Chinese History in ‘The Great Wall’
Let me tell you about the biggest movie ever made in China, directed by China’s greatest living auteur, about one of China’s most famous historical achievements.
The Great Wall is set over a millennium ago in China, where several dynasties’ worth of soldiers and slaves spent their lives constructing 5,500 miles of stone and brick to keep invaders and enemies out. It took 1,700 years to build, the trailer and poster for Universal’s 2017 blockbuster declare, and a few hundred more for Hollywood to teach us who really saved one of the oldest civilizations in human history: Matt Damon.
Yes, that’s right: Matt Damon saves ancient China. From giant reptilian dragons. Because of course! Damon raked in $94 million from Chinese audiences last year by being stranded in space. If he can be The Martian, why not the guy who defends Asia with a quiver of arrows and his stoic Caucasian heroism? Someone call Paul Mooney with a green light, stat.
To be fair, Damon isn’t the first white man to save an exotic culture/people from monsters/utter destruction/other white people. And he sadly probably won’t be the last to go Last of the Mohicans on vast numbers of helpless others. But 13 years after Tom Cruise nobly and narcissistically saved the Japanese by literally becoming the last samurai in all of Japan, it’s extremely frustrating to see that Hollywood’s gone back to the Asian well to cash in on China-mania.
Legendary Entertainment and distributor Universal dropped the first trailer for The Great Wall to kick off its domestic marketing campaign Tuesday, just days after moviedom enjoyed its most diverse Comic-Con ever. Declaration of war on cultural progress, or marketing misstep? You be the judge. Me, I do not want it, I didn’t ask for it, it doesn’t look great, and frankly I’m annoyed on principle. But you do you.
But maybe I was the only one who felt the bile rise at the sight of another blatant white savior narrative. I asked Sarah Kuhn—author of Heroine Complex, the first in a series of books about Asian-American superheroines—what she thought.
“I think for a long time that did feel like the norm and as a viewer, I accepted it as one—that big American studio movies starred white people, that you can’t make money on a movie without white stars, and so on and so forth,” Kuhn wrote via email. “But now that idea feels positively archaic. We’ve seen big, whitewashed spectacles that have totally tanked at the box office. We’ve seen the overwhelming excitement that flares up every time a big, geeky movie gives us a POC hero—like Black Panther in Civil War. And we’ve seen so many calls for representation from POC audiences clearly hungry to see themselves onscreen, who will pay money to see themselves onscreen.
“I’ll fork over half my bank account if they ever make a superhero movie starring Constance Wu, I’m just saying,” she continued. (Samesies.) “So when I see Matt Damon’s face staring at me from a poster that says The Great Wall... honestly, I’m just fed up. I don’t think the excuses people try to use to justify that ‘norm’ hold up any more.”
Phil Yu, who writes at AngryAsianMan.com, echoed the same frustration when I reached him hours after The Great Wall trailer debuted. He’d already gone off on the subject on his own site.
“At this point the white savior conceit is so commonplace, to most people a movie like The Great Wall might feel normal and even expected,” he wrote me. “It’s not surprising. Most people will likely watch this movie and see nothing out of ordinary about a white hero at the center of a story set in 10th century China. Like, OF COURSE it’s a white guy. This probably extends to people actually involved with making movies like this. I’d even argue that a large portion of Asian-American audiences don’t know or don’t care that this is an insulting, tired trope. Why wouldn’t it be a white movie star? For the most part, this is pretty much all we’ve ever known.”
According to the synopsis, The Great Wall stars Damon as a mercenary soldier who gets stuck in China on the wrong side of the wall and becomes a hero by helping various other “elite warriors” beat giant monsters off China’s doorstep. It is written by a bunch of non-Asian Hollywood guys and directed by one of China’s national cinematic treasures. Shot on a budget of $135 million, the most expensive Chinese production ever made also stars Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal (Oberyn from Game of Thrones), Turkish actor Numan Acar, Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, and Tian Jing, the Chinese actress Legendary also hired to diversify the cast of Kong: Skull Island behind its white leads, Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson.
The previews, of course, suggest that Matt Damon saves the day all by himself. His ginormous grime-covered head takes up more space on the poster than I’ve ever seen any one head take up on a one-sheet, although @JuanIsidro notes that Matt Damon’s head has been getting exponentially bigger over his last several movies. In the corner, opposite those tagline factoids pulled from actual Chinese history, an explosion of fireworks in the shape of… a dragon? A horse? It doesn’t really matter. Did you know the Chinese invented fireworks? Culture!
Chinese audiences love white stars, the suits might say, blaming the overseas consumer. Never mind the fact that stateside, and particularly within the Asian-American community, the idea of Matt Damon saving China comes off as patently ridiculous and opportunistic—especially in an era of vocal cries for representation and inclusion in film and television.
“The whole reason I was so adamant about finding an Asian-American lead for Iron Fist last year was precisely because of how worn and tired this trope is,” said Keith Chow, editor of The Nerds of Color. Both he and Kuhn spoke on the timely Super Asian America panel discussing Asian-American and APA representation last week at Comic-Con. “But as long as white men keep making movies, white men will always be at the center of them, no matter where it’s set.”
But as the fastest-growing international market with more spending cash than ever and a hankering for the movies, that Chinese audience has become Hollywood’s favorite excuse for pandering to a government that openly censors art while selling these products to international moviegoers as fantastic cultural gateways to The Orient. And Matt Damon’s hardly alone building that bridge to China. Earlier this year, white American movie stars John Cusack and Adrien Brody chewed up the scenery in China-set historical action flick Dragon Blade, which at least had the sense to star Jackie Chan.
The wishful ignorance seems evident in the way The Great Wall is being framed as simultaneously historical (“1700 years to build… 5500 miles long…” “one of the greatest wonders of our world”) and fantastical enough to justify taking enormous creative license with said history (uh, dragon monsters). The Great Wall seems to want to have it both ways: to appeal to Eastern and Western audiences while exploiting the respect that BAFTA-winning director Zhang Yimou earned many, many years ago and hasn’t replicated since.
Once upon a time, ages ago, Zhang gave zero fucks about making movies that might get outright banned by China’s government censorship org, SARFT. He made his bones as a bona fide auteur with celebrated dramas that actually explored the lives of Chinese people (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju, To Live) or let Chinese heroes be heroes (Hero, House of Flying Daggers).
But by the time he was chosen to direct the 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremony after serving the government well in their 2004 Summer Olympics show, Zhang was shouldering fire from his critics for submitting to government overlords—a professional concession he and artist Cai Guo-Qiang acknowledged in the documentary Sky Ladder earlier this year at Sundance.
“There are many compromises when you are doing movies in China, starting with the choice of topic,” Zhang told an audience at NYU in 2014. “But even when I am forced to compromise, I ask myself, ‘What was the original thing that made me want to make the movie to begin with?’ And I try to insist on preserving that thing.”
“I don’t know what happened to Zhang Yimou’s career, but this is certainly the most blatant, obvious stab at Making Movies the Hollywood Way,” Yu commented. “It’s clear that this is an attempt to create a Chinese movie in the Hollywood mold that appeals to audiences worldwide, right down to its bona fide Hollywood star. I don’t think anybody’s worried about Asian-American representation in this situation—certainly not Chinese moviemakers or audiences.”
Part of the reason a mere trailer and poster and synopsis can trigger this much knee-jerk hate from the Asian-American community is because, well, we’ve been here too many times before—as has just about every other group. The white savior trope is such a tired cliché it has its own Wikipedia entry, for those too ignorant enough to notice: A white savior/messiah saves some helpless group of people of color (or: aliens! I see you, Avatar) from some pickle they can’t possibly save themselves from, usually learning something about himself in the process while also usually romancing an ethnic love interest. Because balance!
Negative reactions to The Great Wall’s premise should, one hopes, send a message to studio gatekeepers who’ve also felt unexpected blowback for the whitewashing of Asian characters elsewhere. “It’s proof that filmmakers from Asia—and appealing to that elusive ‘Chinese market’—isn’t the appropriate counterargument for the lack of Asian-American representation in Hollywood,” said Chow. “The fact that Chinese studios and filmmakers are partnering on this project doesn’t make it okay. Just as the blessing of Ghost in the Shell’s Japanese creators and publishers doesn’t excuse Scarlett Johansson’s casting.”
If the Hollywood writers who scripted the $135 million Chinese-funded blockbuster weren’t aware of how very tired and insulting this concept is, it might be because half of them have built their careers on it. Filmed on location in China and backed by Legendary East, the China-targeting shingle owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, The Great Wall has a story credited to World War Z writer Max Brooks, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz; the latter two directed, wrote and produced… wait for it… The Last Samurai. The screenplay is credited to Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, whose previous films include the bronze-washed Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
What breaks my movie-loving heart most of all is the involvement of a fifth writer: Tony Gilroy, the filmmaker who brought us such varied gems as the first Bourne adaptations, Nightcrawler, and The Cutting Edge. Hey, maybe this opportunistic East-West 3-D monster movie will be good and won’t make my blood boil, after all.
Or maybe now’s a good time to remember Damon’s own immortal wisdom about inclusion and representation for anyone who’s not white in Hollywood: “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”